The speaker’s bladder matters to the success of a filibuster

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., appears on a television screen in the Capitol during his filibuster on Wednesday.
JONATHAN ERNST | REUTERS
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., appears on a television screen in the Capitol during his filibuster on Wednesday.
Posted March 08, 2013, at 6:59 a.m.

WASHINGTON — What was happening to Sen. Rand Paul 12 hours into this windmill-tilting crusade against drones (but not against droning), as the sun set and the moon rose and he talked and he talked and he — oh, how he talked. What was happening to his vocal cords? To the soles of his feet? What was happening — don’t pretend you don’t want to know — to his bladder?

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily the best thing to do.” Bill Frohna considers Paul’s bladder. Frohna is the chairman of the emergency medicine department at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “Your body gives you signals, and you really shouldn’t ignore those. Stay hydrated. Obey the natural process of elimination.” However (however!): “You’re not actually going to be doing any permanent damage. A little urge to go, that’s OK.”

Phew. But there’s still so much attendant discomfort in watching a filibuster, in witnessing a political figure be forcibly separated from his news bites and prepackaged slogans and just having to wing it. Wing it for hours, forever, like the relative who insists on giving an impromptu toast at the wedding — Dear god, now he’s talking about grocery-hoarding survivalists? It could all go so terribly wrong.

Watch Paul’s entire production, fully streamable at c-span.org. Better yet, fast-forward Wednesday’s filibuster in the Senate to random intervals with the volume down low for the full Kabuki effect of this American political theater. Watch hour zero, minute zero when, red-tied and wide-eyed, the Kentucky Republican strolls to the lectern. Witness the progression:

— 3:06 p.m.: The whites of his eyes have begun to match his tie.

— 9:43: The reds of his eyes have begun match the sheen of the Senate mahogany.

— 11:43: Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., is talking now, saving Paul, saving all of us from having to watch.

“One thing senators like to do is talk,” says Don Ritchie, the Senate historian. He worries not for the senator. In the 19th century, all senators were orators. Their constituents got to hear their positions only when they came home to speechify, and those speeches would always last for at least two, three hours. “They were used to standing up on the back of a wagon.”

Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., reportedly took daily steam baths in preparation for his 24-hour 1957 screed against the Civil Rights Act, to dehydrate himself and prepare for his separation from the urinal. In 1935, Sen. Huey Long, D-La., managed to go for 10 hours when he rose to address matters in the National Recovery Act, but he was felled by nature: According to a 2005 Village Voice account of the day, “The Kingfish announced he would yield the floor to seek a conference with the leadership, and he ran for the toilet.”

“My urinary tract was in good shape that day,” says Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., the last torchbearer of the filibuster — he spoke for eight hours in 2010 about tax cuts. “We got a call from the nurse,” though, he says. She wanted him to make sure he walked around enough, to avoid blood clots. The experience wasn’t scary, he says, because he was speaking on something “I feel very strongly about.”

It’s perceived as the height of egotism, the filibuster — the smugness of holding the legislative system hostage while you go on andonandon. The blustering confidence that one’s words are wise enough (wide enough?) to fill more airtime than Wagner’s entire “Ring” cycle.

But the filibuster also reminds us, almost more than any other political act, of the vulnerable humanity of politicians. On the lonely expanse of the Senate floor, they are not swept away by handlers for a quick retouch of a shiny nose. They are not corralled by aides or herded by press secretaries: “I think what the senator meant to say …”

Over the course of several hours, they slowly turn human. Stuttering, sputtering, getting sweaty and, one imagines, smelly. Repeating themselves, backtracking, getting tired.

“I would go for another 12 hours,” Paul said at 12:38 a.m., after he had been speaking for 12 hours 50 minutes. “But I’ve discovered that there are some limits to filibustering, and I’m going to have to go take care of that in a few minutes.”

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